Unions - Whose Side Are They On?

Talk from a Manchester meeting, 23 January 2010


The title of this meeting is “Unions - Whose Side Are They On?” If you were to ask that question to any worker passing this building now it is likely that they would think you were being stupid as the answer is so obvious.

After all the unions are the only organisations in capitalist society which can claim to be mass workers bodies with millions of members.

They have been the target of capitalist laws restricting their ability to defend their members and the worst firms in Britain, from Asda to Orange, to Eddie Stobart, all have no union policies in order to impose their own rates of pay and conditions. Unions do also occasionally call strikes and, since the financial bubble burst eighteen months ago, the ruling class press has been full of worries about a return to “the winter of discontent” of thirty one years ago. And did we not establish unions in the nineteenth century which not only fought the worst wage cutting practices of the capitalist but also helped to organise us as a class? As Marx said in a speech to trades unionists in Hanover in 1869: “trades unions are the schools of socialism”.

In places like Asia and Latin America workers who try to organise unions are regularly and routinely murdered.

As we have recorded in our own press the leaders of the Tehran bus workers union have been languishing in Evrem prison for the last 3 years or so.

Superficially then there is no debate.

Both empirically and theoretically unions are working class organisations.

If only it were so simple. As Marx also said, in another context, “if things and their essence were the same then what need for science?”. In other words we have to explain what lies behind the phenomenon we are looking at. A slightly closer look at the union issue reveals an altogether different reality.

The Origins of Unions

It is true that unions in the UK mainly began in the period after 1824 as fighting organisations of the working class largely to try to prevent wage cuts and defend living standards.

Workers paid into a fund to build up a war chest to enable them to go on all-out strike for as long as possible.

There were no paid officials nor did they require a bureaucracy, let alone General Secretaries on 6 figure salaries (although running off with the union funds in the nineteenth century was not unknown). They were primarily fighting organisations which expressed the basic organisational needs of the working class, and this is what Marx and Engels saw in them. Every strike either succeeded, or the workers were ruined for years, and the union might not even exist during that time. The one thing that did not diminish was workers’ recognition that the only weapon the working class has is its collective strength.

However, even before unions became legally recognised in Britain (which was not until 1871), many of the skilled workers' unions were already changing and becoming permanent.

Most adopted some form of investment fund and acted as friendly societies to provide funds to individual members who were unemployed or ill. The defence of the workers in a particular trade replaced the notion of collective solidarity of all workers.

As Marx summed it up in 1866:

Too exclusively bent upon the local and immediate struggles with capital, the Trades’ Unions have not yet fully understood their power of acting against the system of wages slavery itself.

From Instructions for the Delegates of the Provisional General Council: The Different Questions August 1866

This was to become a constant theme with Marx and Engels. They regarded the unions as the place where the unconscious development of class identity was talking place and always hoped that it would then take on a wider meaning. They wrote several passages like the following:

Apart from their original purposes, they must now learn to act deliberately as organising centres of the working class in the broad interest of its complete emancipation. They must aid every social and political movement tending in that direction. Considering themselves and acting as the champions and representatives of the whole working class, they cannot fail to enlist the non-society men into their ranks. They must look carefully after the interests of the worst paid trades, such as the agricultural labourers, rendered powerless [French text has: “incapable of organised resistance”] by exceptional circumstances. They must convince the world at large [French and German texts read: “convince the broad masses of workers”] that their efforts, far from being narrow -- and selfish, aim at the emancipation of the downtrodden millions.

op cit.

Or as Engels later put it:

More than this, there are plenty of symptoms that the working class of this country is awakening to the consciousness that it has for some time been moving in the wrong groove; that the present movements for higher wages and shorter hours exclusively, keep it in a vicious circle out of which there is no issue; that it is not the lowness of wages which forms the fundamental evil, but the wages system itself. This knowledge once generally spread amongst the working class, the position of Trades Unions must change considerably. They will no longer enjoy the privilege of being the only organisations of the working class. At the side of, or above, the Unions of special trades there must spring up a general Union, a political organisation of the working class as a whole.

Engels in the Labour Standard in 1881

Unions and Imperialism

But the course of history did not take the road that Engels and Marx had hoped.

As modern capitalism developed it has become more and more centralised to the point where monopolies and state capitalist industries dominated economic life. And the nature of class struggle was also changing. Unions also had developed into large permanent organisations. An unsuccessful strike no longer meant their collapse or their loss of all funds. Marx had pointed out against Citizen Weston that wage strikes did not lead to a rise in prices but to a fall in profits as all capitalists faced the same laws. However under monopoly conditions the monopolists can afford to put up wages and prices due to the extra profits they got on the world market. Monopoly companies can also ride a period of losses which bankrupt smaller rivals thus increasing the market share of the monopoly. The cooperation of the unions in regulating wages across whole industries suited the monopolists. At the same time the “class struggle” became a charade as it was turned on and off like a tap. The unions - in league with the Social Democratic and Labour Parties to which they were joined - became increasingly satisfied with the system as long as it allowed them a say in its functioning. They did not question the capitalist mode of production - they sought only to regulate its worst excesses. Mainstream Social Democrats now completely broke from Marxism in maintaining that economic and political struggles were not part of the same fight for socialism.(1) Reformism, jingoism, racism and imperialism became the guiding ideologies of the social democratic union leaders who were now infected with “parliamentary cretinism”.

In the years immediately preceding the First World War the class struggle grew more intense and many workers became more conscious and revolutionary. Whilst some looked to the revolutionary wing of social democracy many workers became discontented with the corrupt parliamentary practices of the socalled reformist socialists and turned to syndicalism. At first sight syndicalism seemed the perfect antidote to parliamentary reformism. Workers united together carry out a general strike and take over the running of the industries they work in. Not surprising that this had a wide appeal to workers at the beginning of the twentieth century.

But syndicalism’s rejection of the fact that revolution is also a political act found it out just as surely as the social chauvinism of the reformist socialists.

When it came to imperialist war in 1914 both the bulk of social democracy and the majority of syndicalists in belligerent countries such as France supported the union sacrée of the nation united against a foreign foe.

Since the First World War the unions have acted to ensure that even the most significant and conscious struggles would end in accepting the legitimacy of the capitalist order (as in the 1926 General Strike). By putting nation before class the labour movement, whatever its political and organisational character in every country, worked to ensure that capitalism would make enough concessions to halt the revolutionary impulses of the workers and in return the unions would act as policemen for the capitalist class in the workplace. In a certain sense the unions’ basic operation has not changed. They still acted as negotiators of the price of wage labour but whereas they were previously scrutinised closely by the workers whose interests they were directly fighting for, today they negotiate within the needs of the national capital. Unions have always accepted the rules of capitalism and their very existence depends on the continued existence of wage labour.

As Marx famously argued unions

…ought to understand that, with all the miseries it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material condi¬tions and the social forms necessary for an economical recon¬struction of society. Instead of the conservative motto, ‘A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!’ they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword, ‘Abolition of the wages system!’.

Marx, Wages, Price and Profit

But they don’t and the hopes that Marx and Engels had in the past that they might develop such a perspective fell foul of the actual function of the unions in capitalist society. Instead of the war to the end to defend living standards unions now negotiate their own influence on the labour market, often directly with government bodies. Their funds are largely invested in pension funds for their own officials rather than to fund a new episode of class struggle.

Unions have never been revolutionary but it is clear that in the epoch of imperialism, of monopoly and state capitalism, of capitalist decadence if you like, the unions have not only failed to defend jobs but have stood in the way of a more general fight against the system.

Unions Today

Many on the so-called left (especially the followers of Trotsky) have argued that the failings of the unions are only because they are “bureaucratic” or about “a question of leadership”. They have often argued for their capture by “revolutionaries” (like themselves) in order to give the leadership that has been so badly lacking. History has falsified this argument. Every so-called revolutionary or left leader who was elected to high union office has ended up acting as precisely as their predecessors (often then transferring to their ultimate reward in the House of Lords). If we take the CWU which called off the postal workers strikes just before Christmas we find confirmation of this. Billy Hayes was elected as the left alternative to John Keggie, Alan Johnson’s chosen successor, because Johnson was seen to have betrayed the postal workers in 1996. Today it is Hayes and Ward who have already negotiated away 63,000 jobs and have constantly assured the press that they will agree to some more going. The National Executive Committee of the CWU, which contains members of the SWP and the Socialist (ex Militant) Party, voted unanimously to call off the strikes. The problem is thus not just about personalities but about the role and function of the unions which operate for the benefit of UK Capital plc and not their members. The CWU leadership is not fighting for the workers but for their place in the capitalist order. They have repeatedly stated that they are prepared to cut even more jobs in the name of modernisation. By calling off the strikes they sacrificed postal workers are as pawns in their game to have a say in management.

In fact it was what happened in Royal Mail just before Christmas which prompted us to choose this issue for today’s meeting but there are other recent examples of anti-working class activity by the union which others will no doubt refer to in the discussion which follows.

A proper analysis of the unions has nothing to do with whether or not they have left or right wing leaders or, have a membership composed of blue collar or white collar workers. It must begin with the function of the unions in contemporary capitalist society which on an economic level is to negotiate the sale of labour power in the context of increasingly narrow constraints of the crisis. Politically the unions in the advanced capitalist countries are more or less wholly integrated into the state, and they play a conscious role in keeping workers divided along union and geographic lines. We can see this confirmed by looking at the COBAS in Italy. These were set up as rank and file bodies in the 1980s by those disgusted at the reformism and lack of militancy of the existing big union federations. But what has happened to them? They have gone down exactly the same road as the old unions because they have taken on the role of negotiating with the management. These COBAS unions have split at least twice to try to form “real unions” (e.g. the SLAI COBAS) but they have all ended up acting just as the original unions. This has been the fate of all so-called rank and file unionism throughout the last century or so.

In places like Asia and Latin America where the price of labour power is driven down by the relationship of the so-called developing countries to the international market the most courageous workers still try to organise unions. But these have nothing in common with the unions of the advanced capitalist countries.

They are struggle organisations which are either crushed or (more rarely) destined to become like the existing unions which exist in the cities of the so-called emerging markets. These are mafia type organisations which mainly act as a protection racket to prevent other workers getting work (the classical example being the Peronist unions in Argentina). The real problem is the function the union performs in capitalist society today.

Our Tasks

An understanding of the fundamentally anti-working class nature of the trade unions in this period does not mean that we ignore them or make abstract calls for workers to leave the unions unless there is a concrete alternative.

The extent to which we participate in the unions is largely a tactical question; we clearly could not become part of the union bureaucracy not even on its lower rungs but because they are places which regroup workers (albeit on sectional and national bases) we join them in order to get a direct entry to workers’ assemblies etc. The main thrust of our intervention is to point out to workers the limits of trade union struggle and pose an alternative of developing a broader struggle beyond trade union constraints.

We do try to organise workers outside of (and it always means against) the unions in workplace, or factory groups.

Currently in Britain this is just an aspiration but our comrades in Italy have managed to organise a small number of such groups which are made up of our members plus other militant workers who recognise the role of the unions in their workplace. This is because we don’t think a communist presence can be built up solely by propaganda or through theory but by communists demonstrating in practice that they “understand the line of march” of the working class. These are not the “transmission belts” of the Third International, as no such mass link between the class and the revolutionary organisation is possible today, but they are bodies which can carry the lessons of one struggle forward to the next and help prevent the fragmentation of workers’ experiences over time.

We also hold to the view that Marx and Engels were right insofar as the “school of socialism” begins, not with the union anymore, but with the daily economic struggle against exploitation.

Revolutionary theory won’t reach the working class just by preaching or propaganda but through such struggles.

And by economic struggles we don’t mean the “money militancy” of the 1970s when each sector of workers divided by the unions chased ever greater percentages for a wage rise. This not only did not lead to a questioning of the wages system but even reinforced it. What history has shown is that the unions have disappointed the original hopes which many socialists had for them. This is largely because of the changing, and much more statified, nature of capitalism.

Today the working class can no longer create permanent economic organs of self-defence. Now every strike’s success hangs on how it advances the working class awareness of the nature of capitalism and on the way in which it is fought. If it can be conducted via mass meetings, through recallable delegates to strike committees and with the active participation of the whole workforce then not only is it more likely to be successful in the immediate term but will provide the organisational framework for a future and wider struggle against capitalist exploitation itself. To achieve it workers will have to come to recognise whose side the unions really are on and in so doing build not permanent economic organs of resistance but an international political organisation which encapsulates the consciousness that our real task is not to beg for better conditions but to fight for a new society.


(1) Although the revolutionaries inside Social Democracy fought this tendency. Rosa Luxemburg in Reform or Revolution wrote:

On the other hand, the effort of the labour unions to fix the scale of production and the prices of commodities is a recent phenomenon. Only recently have we witnessed such attempts – and again in England. In their nature and tendencies, these efforts resemble those dealt with above. What does the active participation of trade unions in fixing the scale and cost of production amount to? It amounts to a cartel of the workers and entrepreneurs in a common stand against the consumer and especially rival entrepreneurs… Trade union action is reduced of necessity to the simple defence of already realised gains, and even that is becoming more and more difficult. Such is the general trend of things in our society. The counterpart of this tendency should be the development of the political side of the class struggle.

Revolutionary Perspectives

Journal of the Communist Workers’ Organisation -- Why not subscribe to get the articles whilst they are still current and help the struggle for a society free from exploitation, war and misery? Joint subscriptions to Revolutionary Perspectives (3 issues) and Aurora (our agitational bulletin - 4 issues) are £15 in the UK, €24 in Europe and $30 in the rest of the World.